Friday, March 6, 2009

Biography and Introduction to J.D. Salinger

Jerome David (J.D.) Salinger, whose nickname as a child was "Sonny," was born on New Year's Day 1919, in New York, New York, the second and last child of Sol and Marie (Miriam) Jillich Salinger. He had a sister, Doris, eight years older. Salinger's father, a successful importer of meats and cheeses, was Jewish, his mother Scotch-Irish. Like most of Salinger's central characters, the family lived in the relative comfort of the upper-middle class.

Young Salinger's early ambition was in dramatics; he was voted "most popular actor" at Camp Wigwam in Harrison, Maine, in the summer of 1930. An average student in public school on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, he was reported to be a quiet, polite, somewhat solitary child. His parents enrolled him in McBurney School in Manhattan in 1932, but he did not adjust well to the private school and struggled with grades.

Concerned about their son's academic performance, his parents sent him to Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania when he was 15 years old. There, he was active in drama and singing clubs. He sometimes wrote fiction by flashlight under his blankets at night and contributed to the school's literary magazine. As editor of the academy's yearbook, Crossed Sabres, he published a poem in it that became the lyrics to the school's anthem. He graduated from Valley Forge Military Academy in June of 1936.

Salinger's collegiate experience was brief but significant. He attended New York University following prep school but withdrew to try performing as an entertainer on a Caribbean cruise ship. His father tried, in vain, to interest Salinger in the import business during a trip to Europe in 1937. Returning to school at Ursinus College in Collegetown, Pennsylvania, in 1938, Salinger wrote a column of humor, satire, and film reviews, called "Skipped Diploma," for the college newspaper.

At the age of 20, in 1939, Salinger enrolled in a short-story writing course at Columbia University taught by Whit Burnett, a writer and important editor; Salinger sold his first story to Burnett's Story magazine for twenty-five dollars the next year. Salinger published a grateful tribute to Burnett in Fiction Writers' Hand-book in 1975.

Despite receiving a number of rejection slips, Salinger continued to write and submit stories. He sold his first Holden Caulfield story (eventually revised and titled "Slight Rebellion Off Madison") to the prestigious New Yorker magazine in 1941, but it was not published until 1946.

During the war, Salinger served as an enlisted man, reaching the rank of sergeant, and continued writing. He received counterintelligence training and landed on Utah Beach, Normandy, on D-day (June 6, 1944). Sergeant Salinger participated in five campaigns in Europe, witnessing some of the heaviest fighting in the war.

He carried a portable typewriter in his jeep, serving his apprenticeship through commercially successful (if mostly forgettable) stories published in popular magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Saturday Evening Post, and Esquire. "I'm Crazy," appearing in Collier's magazine in 1945, included material later used in The Catcher in the Rye.

But for the most part, Salinger tried to dissuade any republishing of these works. As he said in a rare interview with the New York Times in 1974, he preferred that such inferior efforts "die a perfectly natural death." A two-volume pirated edition of uncollected pieces did appear in 1974 despite the best efforts of Salinger and his attorney.

In 1946, a ninety-page novella (a short novel) about Holden Caulfield was nearly published, but Salinger withdrew from the agreement. Another five years passed before he introduced the classic in novel form.

In September of 1945, while still in Europe immediately following the war, Salinger apparently married a French professional, perhaps a physician, named Sylvia (whose maiden name is unknown). A divorce was granted in 1947. He married Claire Douglas on February 17, 1955. The couple had a daughter, Margaret Ann, and a son, Matthew, but divorced in 1967.

Salinger published seven stories in the New Yorker between 1946 and 1951, developing a first rejection rights association (meaning the magazine had the first chance at publishing, or rejecting, his work) with the premiere magazine for serious writers. In 1948, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" introduced Seymour Glass, perhaps the core character of the Glass stories and a figure whom some consider to be nearly as important as Holden in Salinger's work. Esteemed Salinger critic Warren French considers the story to be one of the more significant in American fiction World War II.

After a gestation period of ten years, The Catcher in the Rye was published on July 16, 1951, changing American fiction and J.D. Salinger's life. As French points out, Salinger was "unprepared for the kind of cult success" brought by the novel. The author progressively became one of the most famous of literary recluses, moving to Cornish, New Hampshire, in 1953 and rarely granting interviews or making public appearances. He found fame abhorrent and literary criticism distasteful.

When Ian Hamilton attempted an unauthorized biography of J.D. Salinger in the 1980s, Salinger successfully protested the use of letters that he had written to friends and editors between 1939 and 1961. He claimed infringement of copyright and invasion of privacy even though the letters had been donated to libraries and were available for study.

A Federal Appeals Court denied use of even short quotations or paraphrases from the letters. Salinger was granted legal injunctions against publication of Hamilton's book; these were upheld when the United States Supreme Court refused to review the verdicts of two lower federal courts that held in favor of Salinger.

The decision was considered extraordinary. According to David Margolic, legal affairs writer for the New York Times, this was "the first time in American memory that a book had been enjoined prior to publication, and it sent shock waves throughout the academic and publishing communities" (November 1, 1987).

In retrospect, it might be easy to assume that The Catcher in the Rye was an immediate smash hit, critically and commercially, when it was published by Little, Brown and Company on July 16, 1951. In fact, the reviews were mixed. Although the book sold well, it was not an overwhelming sensation and never reached number one on the best-seller lists. The unusual thing about Salinger's first novel is its staying power.

Many of the novel's early reviews were favorable. On July 14, 1951, the Saturday Review praised the work as "remarkable" and "absorbing." Given Salinger's affiliation with the New Yorker magazine, we might expect extensive attention from that publication, and such was the case; S. N. Behrman wrote an unusually long and strong review (August 11, 1951), stressing the personal attraction of Phoebe and Holden as characters.

The Book-of-the-Month Club selected the novel as a summer alternate, assuring significant sales and widespread attention. In the Book-of-the-Month Club News (July 1951), its large membership received a very positive review by the respected literary critic Clifton Fadiman, including one of the most widely quoted early comments on Holden Caulfield: "[T]hat rare miracle of fiction has again come to pass: a human being has been created out of ink, paper, and the imagination."

Other critics hedged their bets. An unsigned review in the July 15, 1951, Booklist found the work "imaginative" but warned of "coarse language." Writing for the Library Journal (July 1951), Harold L. Roth "highly recommended" the novel but warned that it "may be a shock to many parents" and should be thought of as strictly adult reading. The reviewer for the Nation (September 1, 1951) liked parts of the story but generally thought it was "predictable and boring."

Anne L. Goodman of the New Republic (July 16, 1951) rated the final (carrousel) scene "as good as anything that Salinger has written" but concluded that "the book as a whole is disappointing"; there was just too much of Holden in the book for her. In the August 1951 Atlantic Monthly, Harvey Breit considered the work as a "summer novel" and found it to be a "near miss" in effectiveness. He was, however, one of the first to compare The Catcher in the Rye to Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, an insight whose value has held up over time.

In the July 15, 1951, New York Times, James Stern chose an approach that, unfortunately, was popular nationwide. Attempting to review the novel in the voice of its narrator, he offered such strained turns as, "This Salinger, he's a short-story guy. And he knows how to write about kids. This book though, it's too long. Gets kind of monotonous."

Still others condemned the novel. The Christian Science Monitor (July 19, 1951) complained of the "wholly repellent" vulgarity and "sly perversion" of the piece, concluding that no one who truly loved children could have written such a work. In another widely quoted assessment, Catholic World (November 1951) complained about the "excessive use of amateur swearing and coarse language" and suggested that "some of the events stretch probability," calling Holden "monotonous and phony."

British reviewers were generally unimpressed. The Spectator (August 17, 1951) considered it to be "inconclusive" in theme and a bit too "showy." Times Literary Supplement (September 7, 1951) complains that the "endless stream of blasphemy and obscenity" gets boring after the first chapter.

The novel did well commercially but was not the most popular work of fiction in 1951. It was on the New York Times best-seller list for thirty weeks in all but never climbed higher than fourth. Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny and James Jones' From Here to Eternity, for example, sold more copies initially.

As time passed, however, Salinger's work continued to sell and to attract critical interest. Jack Salzman (in New Essays on The Catcher in the Rye, published by Cambridge University Press) points out that, by 1954, Catcher could be purchased in translation in Denmark, Germany, France, Israel, Italy, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. That international popularity is especially interesting considering the novel's dependence on the vernacular.

The American version sold 1.5 million copies, mostly in paperback, within its first ten years. Eudora Welty (New York Times, April 5, 1953) gave Salinger a critical boost in a very favorable review of his collection, Nine Stories. James E. Miller (J.D. Salinger, 1965) was an important, relatively early supporter. Literally scores of critical works have praised, scrutinized, and dissected the novel.

There have been, of course, those with reservations. In 1959, Norman Mailer (Advertisements for Myself, published by Harvard University Press) called Salinger "the greatest mind to ever stay in prep school." In the August 1961 Atlantic Monthly, Alfred Kazin sardonically referred to the author as "everybody's favorite" and disparagingly classified Holden as cute: "cute in his little-boy suffering for his dead brother, Allie, and cute in his tenderness for his sister, 'Old Phoebe.'"

Writing for the Saturday Review (October 1, 1960), Harvey Swados commented on Salinger's obsession with privacy by dubbing him the "Greta Garbo of American letters"; he found the author talented but boring. Swados and others seem to resent Salinger's popularity, which they attribute to a "cult of personality."

Since J. D. Salinger's initial success with The Catcher in the Rye his work has received considerable critical appraisal which has been generally laudatory but somehow equivocal. It is felt that The Catcher is brilliant but slight and Salinger is read widely but mostly by undergraduates. He writes with vividness, wit and insight but again mostly about very young people.

He is a craftsman; but his prose, by his own admission, is taking on "precisely the informality of underwear."Salinger's failure to emerge unmistakably as a "big" author, however, should not obscure his greatness as a good writer.

The continuing appeal of The Catcher in the Rye can be traced to two factors. First, it is superbly written. Even Salinger's critics usually admit that he captures the vernacular of the prep school adolescent of the time. Second, the novel's insight appeals to the young, the young at heart, the dreamers of succeeding generations and various cultures. On that rest its universality and its staying power.

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